The 5: Burning questions as the Arizona Cardinals enter training camp
The uniforms are the same. So are many of the players.
But the questions surrounding the 2018 Arizona Cardinals as they commence training camp at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale are much, much different.
First-year head coach Steve Wilks has been laser-focused in installing his no-nonsense approach since being hired to take over for the retired Bruce Arians.
Though there are plenty of questions to ponder for Wilks and company, but for our purposes, we’ll narrow the list to five..
1. When will we see Josh Rosen take over at quarterback?
Despite the Cardinals selecting a quarterback in the first round of the draft for the first time since 2010, squarely positioning Rosen as the future option, this room (at least at the start of the season) is about Sam Bradford.
The veteran started the season with a bang — a 346-yard, three-touchdown performance on Monday night in Week 1, helping the Vikings to a 29-19 road win over New Orleans. His QB rating that night (143.0) was the 10th-best recorded by any starting quarterback all season long. That’s the last time anyone saw an effective Bradford. A knee injury kept him on the shelf until Week 5, when he got another start on Monday night — this one against Chicago. He didn’t look at all like his season-opening self and was replaced by Case Keenum late in the second quarter.
And that was Sam Bradford’s season.
The Cardinals rolled the dice on Bradford, giving him a one-year deal worth potentially $20 million. This despite Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer announcing to the media that the former number-one pick’s knee was “degenerative.”
That remains to be seen and the early reviews on Bradford, although guarded, have been positive.
As confident as the Cardinals seem to be in Rosen’s ability to lead, it would behoove them to have a fully healthy Bradford guiding the offense for as long as possible. Whether or not his knee will cooperate with that line of thinking remains to be seen.
2. Can the offensive line shake the ‘injury prone’ label?
Of the five projected starters on Arizona’s front, only center A.Q. Shipley played a full season in 2017. Left tackle D.J. Humphries left the opener against Detroit seven snaps in. He’d return later in the season, but was still only able to play 18.3 percent of Arizona’s offensive snaps all year. Left guard Mike Iupati played only 70 snaps all year. Right guard Justin Pugh, then with the New York Giants, played 40 percent of his team’s snaps while projected right tackle Andre Smith was limited to 55.7 percent with the Bengals.
After two years of being ravaged by offensive line injuries, the Cardinals can’t afford this again. Their offense will be geared around David Johnson in the running game and keeping Bradford (and Rosen, if he plays) upright. It’s really hard to do open holes and protect a QB when there’s a carousel of candidates lining up each week.
Arizona has used 12 different starters on its line over the last two seasons. That’s hardly a recipe for success.
3. How well does David Johnson bounce back?
Johnson has been unable to finish each of his last two regular season NFL games. In 2016’s season finale, the running back left with a knee injury that looked devastating, but wasn’t all that serious. The 2017 season-opening loss to Detroit saw Johnson leave with a wrist injury that kept him on the shelf for the rest of the year.
The fourth-year star did make headlines in June when he opted to skip three days of mandatory mini-camp to let the organization know he’d like a new deal. But by reporting on the first day players returning from injury could, Johnson showed he’s ready to get to work. He’ll be counted on heavily to fuel the offense of first-year coordinator Mike McCoy, and D.J. has never shied away from stating his lofty statistical goals. If the Cardinals can eliminate the cloud of his contract future by signing him and he can stay healthy, I wouldn’t bet against him reaching them.
4. How worried should we be about the depth (or lack thereof) at linebacker?
The Cardinals, with new head coach Steve Wilks and coordinator Al Holcomb at the helm, have switched to a 4-3 alignment. Haason Reddick and Deone Bucannon, both coming off of so-so seasons, will line up on the outside, with pleasant free agent surprise Josh Bynes in the middle.
Other candidates on the depth chart include Bryson Albright, Scooby Wright, Jeremy Cash and Edmond Robinson. That group has combined to play 63 defensive snaps in the NFL.
As camp gets underway, there are still several proven options around the league looking for jobs. This could be an area the Cardinals address before preseason concludes.
5. Who is going to be the number-two receiver?
Larry Fitzgerald is back and even with new quarterbacks in the fold, figures to be productive once again. Over the last three seasons, only Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown (343) has more receptions than Fitzgerald’s 325.
But who will be his counterpart? There is no shortage of candidates. The Cardinals have invested high draft picks to take receivers in each of the last two years. Chad Williams, a third-round pick in 2017, struggled to find footing in his first year, catching only three passes. In April, Arizona plucked native Christian Kirk in the second round out of Texas A&M. Lauded for his professionalism and work ethic, Kirk could make an immediate impact in ’18.
Speedster J.J. Nelson, who has shown glimpses of brilliance but not a lot of consistency, returns, as does Carlton Agudosi. General manager Steve Keim also brought in free agent Brice Butler, who spent the last three years in Dallas, and Greg Little, who hasn’t caught an NFL pass since 2014.